Jutta Limbach, First Woman to Lead Germany’s Highest Court, Dies at 82

New York Times 12 September 2016
By Alison Smale

ERLIN — Jutta Limbach, a lawyer who became the first woman to head Germany’s highest court and later led a commission to mediate disputes about the restitution of art seized by the Nazis, died on Saturday at her home here. She was 82.

Her death was announced by the Federal Constitutional Court, which gave no cause.

Ms. Limbach was born Jutta Ryneck on March 27, 1934, into a well-known Social Democratic family in Berlin. She was 11 when World War II ended. Decades later, she said that she was of the generation that had learned of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes as a rude shock.

She kept with her, she said, a first edition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed in December 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly.

“My family did something to develop my sense for human rights,” she told the Berlin daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel in 2007.

Her father, Ernst Ryneck, who was briefly mayor of the Pankow district of Berlin after World War II, had taken an anti-Nazi stance, and her grandmother, Elfriede Ryneck, was a member of the German Parliament during the Weimar Republic between the world wars. At her death, Ms. Limbach was working on a biography of her great-grandmother, Pauline Staegemann, a trade union pioneer.

Ms. Limbach studied law in Berlin and Freiburg. She became a law professor at the Free University of Berlin in 1972, the first woman to do so. She served the city-state of Berlin as senator for justice from 1989 to 1994, when she was appointed to the constitutional court, Germany’s highest. She rose quickly to lead it and remained in that post until 2002.

During her term, she argued for the prosecution of the former leader of Communist East Germany, Erich Honecker, and of former members of the East German secret police, known as the Stasi.

Mr. Honecker fled Germany for Chile, where his daughter lived, and died there in 1994 without facing charges of human rights violations and other crimes.

After stepping down from the constitutional court, Ms. Limbach ran the Goethe Institute, the government body that promotes German language, literature and culture around the world, for six years.

From 2003 until her death, she headed a commission created to settle disputes over art seized by the Nazis.

Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress and the founder of the Neue Galerie, a museum of early 20th-century German and Austrian art in Manhattan, often criticized the work of the Limbach Commission, as it was popularly known. He said in a statement on Monday that Ms. Limbach “was personally always beyond reproach, and she showed enormous competence in dealing with art restitution cases put before her and the commission.”

It would be a fitting tribute, he added, “to reform this commission to be more open, transparent and effective.”

The World Jewish Congress has urged the German government to include at least one Jew as a permanent member of the commission, whose findings are not binding though considered influential in settling ownership disputes.

Ms. Limbach was married for more than 50 years to another lawyer, Peter Limbach, who survives her, as do the couple’s three children.
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